Oklahoma’s True Poet Laureate: Woody Guthrie

My students have been studying the life and work of Woody Guthrie. It’s his centennial, and good old Oklahoma is finally coming around to see what an important man this guy from Okemah really was. My fellow Okies tend to hold a grudge for way too long, and in this case it was never warranted—to think someone was a communist (which he wasn’t) and a socialist (which he was, though didn’t care for the tag) is not a decent reason to deny his value.

In preparation for seeing the exhibit about him at the Gilcrease Museum (only there til April 29—go see it NOW!), students have been listening to his songs, reading about him, and watching Bound for Glory, the movie of his life with David Carradine giving a perfect portrayal of him. They made posters where they compared the lyrics of one of Guthrie’s songs to a contemporary song that they like. In the process, they learned—and I did, too—what a great songwriter and poet he was.

“This Land is Your Land” and “Oklahoma Hills” are certainly poetic and worthy of the fame that they have, but take a look at the lyrics of some of the other songs (he wrote over 1,000) on the Woody Guthrie site. Consider the opening verse of “Harness up the Day”:

It’s a wrinkled, crumbled, rumpled look
That’s scattered ‘cross my bed
Where a friend of mine now long gone
Used to lay her restless head
The moon would fall across the sky
The stars would take a peep
And I would stay awake at nights
To watch my lover sleep

Or “Mail Myself to You”—best read in its entirety:

I’m a-gonna wrap myself in paper, 
I’m gonna daub myself with glue, 
Stick some stamps on top of my head;
I’m gonna mail myself to you.

I’m a gonna tie me up in a red string, 
I’m gonna tie blue ribbons too,
I’m a-gonna climb up in my mail box; 
I’m gonna mail myself to you.

When you see me in your mail box, 
Cut the string and let me out; 
Wash the glue off my fingers, 
Stick some bubble gum in my mouth.

Take me out of my wrapping paper, 
Wash the stamps off my head; 
Pour me full of ice cream sodies,
Put me in my nice warm bed.

And in  the opening verse of “The Secret of the Sea” you can see how his love songs, which he didn’t call them that, were never conventional:

Who can guess the secret of the sea?
Who can guess the secret of the sea?
If you can guess the secret of my love for you
we both could know the secret of the sea

Lastly, here are a few of the many verses of “You and I,” of which you really need to read the whole poetic thing:

I am your midnight, midnight and dark night; 
You are my room, and my chair and my bed; 
You are my babies, I am your children; 
We are the graveyard, but not the dead.

You are my firefly, I am your night hawk; 
You are the lake and I am the pool; 
You are my free winds kissing the sweet leaves; 
I am your college and you are my school.

Guthrie said, ““I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.” While there’s plenty of discontent and anger in his songs, he truly wrote the poetry of the people—its purpose, one of the finest a writer can have: to uplift us all.

–Shaun Perkins

3 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s True Poet Laureate: Woody Guthrie”

  1. Okemah is my old home ground. They have a festival in his honor every year now but you are right about grudges. There was a time they didn’t think too much of him. Nice post!

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